This month on Band of the Month, we look at not a band: Not the Beatles, specifically. That is - John, Paul, George and Ringo, on their own. (I should add - this is not because of Boyhood - I have been planning to do something like this since the beginning - Beatles: Not the Beatles.) And Yoko, because - why not? Yoko gets a bad rap - she was an interesting part of the late Beatles music, and kept John a bit more interesting in after years - and produced (in the Plastic Ono Band) some of the best rock (at least the best hard rock) of the post-Beatles careers. Did it with John and Ringo, too - she's getting into this post, like it or not.
All right - we may come back to that, but for now ... The Beatles, after the Beatles - what is there to say? First - between the lot of them, they made a hell of a lot of great music, were very successful, remained major cultural forces. Given the quality and importance of their solo work, it's just all the more striking how disappointing it all could be. In this case - the whole of the Beatles was very much greater than the sum of the parts. I love a few of these songs, but would any of them break into a Beatles top 10? Working Class Hero, especially, is in the elite - but, let's see - 2 years ago, I had She Said She Said #10 - would Working Class Hero bump that? Not readily... I am not sure why there is such a noticeable gap: they were almost four solo acts by the end of the Beatles; they were all good musicians, but none of them so good or inventive they transformed the band around them with sheer talent (like Richard Thompson or Keith Moon or Clarence White, say); they were all liberated, in some ways, by going off on their own - they all made great music - but it's impossible to forget who they had been.
Now - this is mainly true of John and Paul. George Harrison really was liberated by the end of the Beatles, and finally got to put as much of his music out as he wanted - his career didn't really sustain the strength of All Things Must Pass, but that's a very high place to start - probably the best post-Beatles record of the lot of them. And Ringo too finally got to be the star, and has put together a very entertaining and generous career. So - George, especially, did solo music as good as his Beatles music (in the vicinity at least.) But John and Paul? I like their solo stuff - but it never lives up to their Beatles work, and it is never sustained. I look at the records I have on the computer, on the ipod - and realize there's quite a bit from either of them I'm happy to fast forward through. Are there Beatles songs I'd fast forward through? Revolution #9? if I were in a certain mood, maybe, maybe; usually not, though - I mean, I like experimental stuff! I'm sorry this is so negative - again - they are victims of their own work - everyone looks bad compared to the Beatles, even ex-Beatles.
I think there are fairly definable problems with their solo music, that might be traced to their break. John's songs tend to work pretty well (in the Beatles, I am not inclined to chose between John and Paul; as solo artists - it is John Lennon all the way, the clear and unambiguous winner [and George takes 2nd]) - but they don't have the musical thrill his Beatles songs have. There are good songs - but they are increasingly bland, unchallenging musically. Still often quite good, in a craftsmanlike way - they work, because they are built on simple direct melodies, and are lyrically satisfying - but they are, at best, decent singer-songwriter tunes, elevated by the words. He didn't slip as a lyricist - might even have become more direct and serious (whether that is all to the good, I won't say - but it's a virtue, nonetheless.) But you can read working Class Hero and it doesn't sound much worse than the song - can't say that for She Said She Said.
And Paul tends to reverse this. I can't deny - his solo and Wings material remains gorgeous - melodically, harmonically, rhythmically interesting, stylistically imaginative (if not exactly adventurous) - but... Sometimes drowning in the sweetness - a trait that crept into his music with the Beatles, but never overcame it. And there are songs - the best ones, the ones here - that are, musically especially, thrilling. But - are they songs? He did love collages - Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey, Band on the Run - maybe to a fault? Band on the Run especially, is almost frustrating - he's overwhelmed with ideas, packs three into one song that might have been three songs - though I suppose my real complaint is I wish the middle one had gone on longer - that riff (give it all to charity), I think, might be the best of his career, while the final riff, the bulk of the song is just - nice... But I can't complain - for all the over-sweetness of McCartney's work, it always sound great, as sheer sound. But - some of his songs have lyrics. Not enough of them. And very few that come close to John's lyrics, or even George's (or Paul's own Beatles words.) And more songs that I care to admit barely have any words - or make the words a purely musical element. Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey might epitomize this - a few words, repeated, varying the sound more than the sense - words as music. Which - there - works rather marvelously. It might as well be an instrumental - an instrumental with voices - or, what it is, a collage, of words and sounds and music. And - that's not the problem. But then you start to notice that this isn't all that different from so much of what he did - songs like Silly Love Songs, Listen to What the Man says - a kind of statement, then repeated, varied - sounds great; doesn't say much.
What it means? I think - they challenged each other when they were in the Beatles - I don't know how much they edited one another, but just the sense of competition maybe, forced them to try to make everything work, made both of them be sure they were writing complete songs. Wait, you say - the last couple records were packed full of snippets weren't that? But are any of John's solo songs as musically cool as Polythene Pam, say? No; and somehow that's got to be the point - that together, they pushed each other in ways that going on their own lost. It's strange - but I can't get away from it. It's sad - Paul's musical invention; John's continued lyrical seriousness and ambition - working apart, never pushing the other to make the lyrics or music live up to the rest. Creating two excellent artists that you can't help compare to what they had been.
All right. This is far more negative than it should be - the cruel impact of having been the best, for both of them... I do like them both - have since the 70s, especially McCartney and Wings, who were all over the radio in those days... And - I don't want to sell them short: I've implied it so I will say it plain: that John's lyrics remained pretty much as good as a solo artist as they were in the Beatles (and more direct and political, as well; sharper) - that Paul remained as inspired a composer, and almost as adventurous, as a solo artist. But John was less musical inspired - became far more conservative, as a musician (except with Yoko, interestingly); while Paul became - at worst - insipid as a lyricist... They needed each other.
Unlike George Harrison - who, at least at the beginning, was all the things the other two were as solo artists. All Things Must Pass has excellent songs - words, music; excellent melodies; and is often far more adventurous musically - shifting styles, incorporating more different sounds - harder rock, country, Indian styles, horn sections - it's all over the place in ways the other three never really did (but the Beatles did all the time.) A good place to stop - on the best record any of them made alone...
All right - let's try a top 10. This is a bit painful - nothing like picking a top 10 for the Beatles (along with the commenters back then, we got up to a top 40 that didn't really begin to cover the scope of their work... yeah.) But - Let's do it: 10 best songs by ex-Beatles (including Yoko, because I like Yoko!)
1. Working Class Hero - John
2. What is Life - George
3. Maybe I'm Amazed - Paul
4. Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey - Paul
5. Cold Turkey - John
6. Jealous Guy - John
7. Why? - Yoko (with John and Ringo, rocking out)
8. It Don't Come Easy - Ringo
9. If Not For You - George
10. Band on the Run - Paul
And some video:
Here are George and Ringo playing It Don't Come Easy:
Paul McCartney, 2004:
As for John - I've posted a lot of Lennon through the years - not sure I've posted this one - How Do You Sleep, with recording footage (George playing; Paul the target) - a rather unfair piece of work, but a heck of a song:
And Yoko, Why?
And finally - 2 halves of another band that broke up too soon, covering Yoko. Which is another reason to keep Yoko in here - at least in bands I listen to a lot, she probably had more influence than the rest of them put together (post Beatles.) Her unholy squall - and the music around it - shows up all over the place in the 80s and 90s - Sonic Youth, The Butthole Surfers, The Boredoms, etc. - and the pretty stuff - well -